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Communicating about Financial Aid

Seven steps to a better process and output
University Business, Feb 2013

With families’ growing concerns about financing higher education, and the federal government’s increasing involvement in recommending and/or requiring certain communications regarding institutional costs, every institution should be taking a step back to review all of the tools currently being used to present affordability, explain the aid application process, and communicate the awards themselves.

Many institutions are using multiple vehicles for such communications, which can be good given that different students and families pay attention to different media. However, presenting information in multiple venues can also result in discrepancies that can confuse families. For example, even something as simple as the percent of students receiving aid or the tuition charged by an institution can be listed differently on the web versus in print, or on different pages of the institution’s website, with no clear explanation as to the reasons for the difference. Following are seven key steps to cover.

1. Put consistency first.

This means ensuring that all vehicles are sharing consistent information. Consider the institution’s net price calculator; the financial aid, student accounts, and/or admissions web pages; emails, brochures, and letters sent to current or prospective students by admissions and/or financial aid; the information available via the institution’s student portal; and the information provided by admissions, financial aid staff, and student accounts staff via the telephone or in person.

2. Assemble the review team.

Ensuring that the right people on campus are involved in a comprehensive review is not just the responsibility of the financial aid office. Admissions and marketing must be involved with respect to prospective student communications, and staff working on retention need to be involved in looking at messages to current students.

In addition, don’t forget to involve students themselves. Having the perspectives of multiple offices as well as “customers” can ensure that the communications are appropriately encouraging and consistently accurate.

For example, when members of the Scannell & Kurz team visit campuses, we are often surprised to find that institutions are using net price calculators (NPCs) that do not accurately reflect merit and need-based aid policies. Take the federal calculator, for example. Because it is based on historical rather than current data, and because it is driven by averages, it may be accurate for very few students at your institution. In particular, at institutions where a significant amount of aid is awarded based on merit, the eligibility criteria should be asked in the NPC so that the resulting scholarships can be reflected in the estimated award provided.

3. Be wary of unintentional miscommunication.

When financial aid terms aren’t fully explained, miscommunication can occur. For example, the new “shopping sheet,” which the Department of Education and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has finalized and that hundreds of schools have agreed to adopt, starts with the “estimated cost of attendance.” That includes direct costs, plus estimated indirect costs for transportation, books, personal expenses, etc. Without fully explaining that distinction, it is highly likely that some families will assume they will owe the school the “net costs” listed on the shopping sheet under the heading “what will you pay for college.”
Consequently, schools that have adopted the shopping sheet should consider augmenting this presentation of the award with a clarification of direct versus indirect costs, or with a worksheet to help families figure out what they will actually owe to the institution.

4. Examine the timing.

A review of the stream of communication is not just about consistency and clarity, but also about whether the appropriate information is being communicated at the right time.

For example, general information about affordability (e.g., case studies, data on the most recent incoming class’ income profile, and criteria for any guaranteed awards) should be communicated to prospective students very early in the process—at the inquiry stage, if possible—to ensure they won’t be discouraged by the sticker price and therefore not bother to complete their admission application, let alone their financial aid application.

This information should not only be in brochures and on the web, but also part of each recruiter’s “tool kit.” Similarly, information on how to apply for aid should not only be on the website, but should be communicated directly to prospective students shortly after the first of the year when the new FAFSAs are available. Returning students should be reminded that they need to apply for aid each year.

Offers of financial aid should be made as soon as possible. Merit awards and entitlements (awards guaranteed to students meeting certain criteria, such as alumni children, siblings, etc.) should be offered as soon as it’s clear that students meet the criteria. Comprehensive packages, including not only merit and entitlement funds, but also need-based aid, should ideally be provided to new students as soon as the FAFSA information arrives, even if the student is selected for verification. (NOTE: Returning students are often required to complete verification first, which is appropriate as long as information about the items needed to complete their file is provided as soon as the FAFSA information arrives, and at regular intervals thereafter.)

After the award is made, students with eligibility for awards that have not taken the necessary steps to get those funds disbursed (such as those eligible for direct student loans who fail to sign the master promissory note) should receive reminders. Finally, financial aid and student accounts staff should work together to reach out to students with unpaid balances to help them resolve their financial issues.

The entire stream of communication about costs, affordability, and aid should be reviewed to ensure the information is being delivered in a timely fashion and that there are no gaps where students could fall through the cracks and miss out on aid for which they were eligible.

5. Use the right communication tools.

Consider which vehicle or vehicles are being, and should be, used. For example, most institutions still send paper award letters to incoming students, even if they also have access to award information online via a student portal. This approach facilitates the family conversation around the kitchen table as multiple offers are compared. Recruiters at many schools follow up with a telephone call once the awards letters have been sent, to walk families through the letter and answer any questions they may have. This personal outreach also offers families an opportunity to talk about changes in their family circumstances that could be referred to the financial aid office for consideration.

For current students, most institutions have moved to simply emailing students to tell them that their award letter is now available online. Here is where student involvement in reviewing the communication stream can be extremely valuable. They can provide great insight on which vehicles work the best for each type of information. For example, many campuses are finding an increasing number of current students would now prefer to receive certain notifications via text message.

6. Determine if any steps can be nixed.

This involves reviewing every step in the aid application and acceptance process. Scott James, vice president for enrollment management and student life at Salem State University (Mass.), recently re-evaluated the need for students to proactively accept the aid awarded. Moving to an “assume acceptance” model cut down significantly on the amount of paper coming into the office and decreased time to disbursement, he says. “Students are happier, and staff members are able to focus on other high-impact tasks.”

7. Consider training needs.

Is training needed to ensure consistent, timely, and accurate messages? It may be. Recruiters must be able to communicate affordability, not just sticker price. Financial aid and student accounts staff should be cross-trained to handle questions about cost and aid. Academic advisors should understand certain aspects of financial aid to discuss aid renewability, implications of changes in enrollment status, and opportunities for reconsideration based on changes in financial circumstances. And certainly, all staff within financial aid should receive ongoing training to ensure consistent answers to questions regardless of which staff member is reached.